Laughter. Minus-Laughter.


When laughter first gripped the huminal (the beast person), its fur disappeared for an instant as did its bludgeon and its roars. Its snarl turned to a grin. The huminal began to jitter and flicker like a televised image during a thunderstorm, like a light bulb in its last seconds, like a candle in a breeze. Its eyes started to water, and its ears opened to new soundscapes, other frequencies – for a few moments. Then it once again brimmed over with animality; the cave enveloped the creature, and the dumbfounded huminal sank back down onto all fours.

Millions of years ago the huminals discovered the stone wedge. This allowed it to smash its opponent’s skull long before either opponent was in any condition to talk to the other. At daytime gestures of superiority and humility allowed the huminals to deter each other from such doings. At night, however, gestures and facial expressions were invisible. Night meant relying on sounds. Science locates the origins of laughter in these ancestors’ grunt-like “I don’t bludgeon you: you don’t bludgeon me” utterances. And perhaps it happened here for the first time, where strange laughter from the darkness aroused the opponent’s laughter, where the becoming-human’s achievement of control over the Affect crumbled back into pieces: the huminal sensed that it at once was – and had – a body. *

Does laughter have an origin? A source or a core? Or is laughter’s seizing of power, the victorious cavalcade of its multiplicity, all that exists? An initial bursting out and its unmitigated echo. Laughter is a shadowy creature, which after millions of years still feels at home beneath the outer shell of the human being. There it resides and moves about as chemistry, as network, as fungus, sprouts tubers, and shoots, grows into dendrites and veins, waxes and wanes. Limited by this underground existence, it makes its appearance through eruption, swelling through pores or cracks; it breaks out of its mantle, gushes, gallops, stumbles, rushes, hovers. Laughter spreads like gas, like a language, infects, advances like a herd, like an electrical current or like an oil spill or slime, then oozes away in retreat once again, evaporates, flees, submerges, goes back underground.

Laughter is a life form without form, living together with us, in us and beside us. It is a ‘function’ or ‘creature’ without top or bottom. It produces a simultaneity of humanness and loss of bodily control, of socially caring behavior and anarchy. It helps the body achieve temporary victories over the otherwise dominant intellect, although it has neither a subject nor an object, but instead only destinations, sizes and dimensions. This laughter in our substratum is a permanent component of our Self and as such equally strong and influential in its absence and in its presence.

Absent laughter, minus-laughter, the complete missing of actual as well as potential laughter, behaves like a subterranean smoldering fire in a decommissioned and sealed coal mine, like fire within the peat under moors. Over a long period of time, the underground soil burns until the surface suddenly unlocks itself, until it ruptures and sinks, drawing everything that had been previously covering the fire down into the gaping pits. The mouths and abysses torn open by minus-laughter are the black holes, vampire teeth and dragon stomachs that also dwell with, in and beside us.

The woman is standing on a rickety ladder, washing the window.

Black figures are dancing obscenely in circles around the strawberry bed outside in the garden.

The woman starts to cry and gnash her teeth.

She tears at her hair. She climbs down the ladder. She’s trembling. She escapes into the kitchen, dumps out the bucket of dirty water.

Outside in the garden the black figures are coming closer until they reach the kitchen window.

They press their sweaty, hairy bodies against the windowpanes, bare their huge yellow teeth, rub their erect tails against one another and shoot electric beams from their eyes into the woman’s brain.

The woman's eyes twist in their sockets. Grimaces afflict her face. She becomes a chicken face, a dog face.

The little dog-chicken howls and drools, becomes a sheep-ape-owl. Flutters.

She grabs a big kitchen knife. With both hands-hoofs-claws.

The black figures press their noses flat against the windowpanes. Their red tongues flap over the glass, leaving slobbery traces behind. Electric bombardment from their shriveled raisin-eyes. Thought control.

The animal-woman’s brain is boiling. Goosebumps.

She stabs at the air with the knife. Cuts the air to shreds. To slices. Rips holes. Makes shredded air.

Gerda Pente was my grandmother. My grandmother was ill. Paranoid schizophrenia and endogenous depression. Endogenous depressions are not diagnosed anymore these days. Today depressions are understood as after-effects of circumstances and incidences. Let me get straight to the point. My grandmother never laughed. I can well remember the rare encounters I had with her. They were exceptional situations. Puzzling inspections of emotional labyrinths. A little bit frightening. As long as other adults were present, she kept silent, cried, but alone with us children she weepingly pulled faces, weepingly made grimaces, weepingly chanted incomprehensible spoonerisms, ultimately making us laugh. My grandmother always cried. In my memory her face is wet.

Since beginning of autumn I get visited on and off by her ghost. With ghost I mean a form of visual appearance between my memory and her invisibility. My grandmother—who, before her death, had already been poisoned, been locked up, had already become invisible more than once— has been a ghost for quite some time now. Probably for the last fifty years.

I came into contact with her no more than ten times in my life; and even though she was still partially alive back then, I, as child and early youth, without knowing, did indeed become witness to her already advanced, successive and recurrent disappearance. Although I didn’t realize then to what extent her disappearance had already advanced, the nervous giddiness that she disseminated among us children, despite her weeping, contributed to her irritating fleetingness. Any real figure was indecipherable, concealed behind the codes and signs, which she used so contradictorily. Her performance was extraordinary. How could I have laughed at her jokes in spite of her tears? It was not laughter directed at her, like laughter about a sad clown; it was much more a laughter that was evoked through great amazement, through surprise, the same way I am forced to laugh today when I encounter something altogether extraordinary. And it was evoked by my shame.

Her constant lapses into invisibility also had to do with the effect she had on the adults, on her son in particular, who at that time was my father. As far back as my childhood, his looking away in shame resulted in her fading, her fraying, her melting away to the outer edges of my own perception. Also her husband, who at that time was my grandfather, would—not only—turn a blind eye, he would even leave the room in which she shed her tears. Even when I myself was, in fact, able to see her with my own two eyes, her ‘being unseen’ caused her face to empty itself out, her form to fade.

The pit of a minus-laugh, covered internally in red hair, has revealed itself to me. The buildings and trees standing on the edges rock to and fro threateningly. On my left in the branches of a tree on the precipice, someone has affixed a meshwork out of colorful twine and shards from a broken mirror. The mirrors throw the abyss' own likeness back at itself. The sky is a smoky yellow. In my hand I am holding a plaster plate marked with the image of two peaches painted by my grandmother. I throw this plate down into the big ear of the minus-laugh. I count the seconds until the plate's impact. It takes forty-two seconds. At an average fall velocity of fifty-five meters per second, the depth of the minus-laugh in front of me measures two thousand three hundred and ten meters. It twitches like the ear of a fox.

Now, some years after her physical death, she shows up in the kitchen at my place. She—whose physical death was kept secret by my closemouthed and now likewise vanishing father; she, whose date of passing as well as gravesite are known only to him—was referred to by all of us as "the sad grandmother". Gerda Pente, the wet face.

Today—since I am rudimentarily attempting to understand the emancipatory strength of a demo-cratization of monological dramas, a strength which I observe in 'causeless' or 'abstract' performative laughter, * since I intent to find insight into the detonation (triggered by laughter) of the drama and its container and form—today, for all of these reasons, I tried to start a conversation with my grandmother. I wanted to find something out about her minus-laughter. I had hoped I would be able to elicit one of her own narrations, a self-description, an opening up of the monologue of her passions, feelings, desires, her own assessment of the systems and mechanisms which led to her invisibility—to see the circumstances of her disappearance from her point of view. My Grandmother exercises her right to remain silent.

Gerda Pente suffers from hallucinations. She sees things. She believes that her husband and the neighbors want to harm her. She believes that she is unremittingly zapped at nighttime by electrical devices, that this allows others to read her thoughts or think them for her. One day in the early fifties the fourteen-year-old son of Gerda Pente returns home early from school, unexpectedly. She sees one of the figures of her hallucinations in him and proceeds to attack him with a large kitchen knife. He is able to escape to the garden unharmed. From then on he lives for a longer period of time with his aunt and uncle in a different part of town.

A black and white photo from a family album is lying before me, dated 1976. My two siblings, my grandmother and I are in the picture. My grandmother is looking into the camera. My sister is looking at the floor in front of her; my brother is looking to the right and I to the left, both of us focused on something outside the picture.

The four of us are sitting in the gloomy living room of my grandparents' house in Dortmund. The sofa is a German Louis XV half-copy with almost-black wood and tapestried upholstery. Behind our backs is wood paneling running halfway up the wall – above that, vertically striped wallpaper. The dim daylight is shining into the scene from the left and from the right, giving the impression that my brother, who is on the outer right, is looking through a window out onto the street. My gaze appears to wander from the left side of the sofa, through the adjoining dining room and out into the garden. My sister is sitting bent slightly forward between my brother and grandmother, and her long light-blonde hair, which is bathed in light from both windows, casts a shadow on her face. Her gaze is aimed at her feet or at the Persian carpet beneath them. My grandmother is sitting upright in the middle of the frame, her back straight, wearing a light-colored, intricately patterned house frock. Her gray hair is wildly sticking up from her small head; between her knees she holds her cane with both hands. Her bare feet are crammed into white sandals. She's looking directly into the camera. My mother, who is holding the camera, has to stand in the doorway, which leads to another room or to the corridor. I see this because the view into the living room is faintly cut off on the left side by a blurry, dark, vertical stripe which encloses the scene as would some segment of a doorframe.

By virtue of the camera's position, which is outside of the room where the scene takes place; because of the light, emanating from both sides with an odd uniformity, and through the combination of different lines of vision, this scene seems profoundly composed. A frozen moment in a whodunnit. A film noir still, loaded with suspense. Here and now as an observer of the photo, I have the feeling that something despicable has just been committed or that someone is planning to do such a thing before or after this specific represented moment.

Does the photo attest to this kind of conspiracy? In any case, no matter if a despicable action is carried through, thought of or planned out, I function inside this captured moment as a viewer, a protagonist, a bystander who—through the act of observation from the inside of the occurrence as participant as well as from the outside as onlooker—has a share in provoking the inclination to at least imagine the despicable, even though I may openly disapprove of whatever is enacted or planned.

My inescapable tenure in the function of the more or less twelve-year-old grandson whose gaze seeks refuge outside; my bashful, evasive participant's stare, how I hope that not seeing 'it' might lead to 'it' not happening; my elusive gaze, the gaze of the one who is being photographed, my only possible shot at effectuating my own disappearance from the situation ... . Amidst all our solitary gazes, never intersecting, never meeting, one of the foundations for Gerda Pente's disappearance gets articulated *. The shame I experienced at that time is one of the essential tools used in the building of the construct of values, which underlies this story. The potential dialogue, an always-present promise, gets subdivided by the stage directions of shame into individual monologues. We, the protagonists of this staging, remain invisible to one another. Deranged and overtaken by darkness, we trudge past one another within the self-made blackness of our single family homes.

A box is something which asks to be opened. As long as a box is closed, it remains in the society of objects. However, as soon as this box is opened up, the dialectic of inside and outside collapses. With one stroke the outside is changed; an atmosphere of newness and surprise prevails. For an instant concepts of volume and content have another relevance for the simple reason that a new dimension has just uncovered itself. Duality, a notion of polarity, which clouds our sight the second we understand it in visual terms, melts into a limitless non-space of simultaneity." is what I recall Gaston Bachelard saying in the book The Poetics of Space (New York: Orion, 1964)

The box from the inside, the dimmed theater, the way we arrange ourselves, the light and the social and architectural event turn my attention unavoidably away from myself and toward something outside of myself. The dimness that surrounds me and the silence, which is now setting in intensifies my perception of this self-release, favoring an external happening.

Many other people find themselves with me inside this black box. Somebody somewhere starts laughing. Almost synchronously, this first laughter transmits to neighboring people. Maybe, for a short moment, I laugh at the humorousness of the situation. At the same time my laughter is mainly a reflex movement and as such has a peculiar characteristic: it transpires with the highest of magnitudes here in the box because my attention is averted away from my body. This focusing away from my body permits the laughter, issuing forth from the dark space, to gain power over my body, to almost literally incorporate myself and anyone else who is present.

Due to this 'artificial' ungrounded laughter, the aforementioned elements of the dimmed space and my—our—archaic, reflexive reaction to the laughter, the laughing person succeeds in initiating the creation of one big common body. This body follows no score, no order, no conductor as do most of the collective bodies that I know of; instead, it obeys its own mirroring from which it springs, but only at the outset. It then proceeds to free itself from this mirroring, becoming an autonomous body above every hierarchical systematization.

This incipient body defies every design. It is not a concept and gains consciousness only through pure practice. It is itself affect and emotion, desire and object of desire. It by no means grows out of a lack. The body of a reflex, a body, which cannot be desired. This body grows beyond the size and structure of the space in which it is generated. After the shortest of times it completely fills out the black box, swells into the ventilation shafts, into the electrical outlets, under chairs and tables, pushing doors open, rolling down hallways. Corridor and coat check, the mirrors along the foyer wall splinter and shatter under its weight. Windows burst. The roof lifts up, and its shingles patter onto the square and the cars that are parked there.

The night air fans the huge, multicolored surface of the body, which I would like to name Blob from now on. While Blob causes the building to disintegrate, it becomes aware of its own collective size as well as its coinciding piecemeal state of being.

Blob, which I would like to name Grrr from now on, is the body upon which intensities move around, intensities that provoke an end to 'I' and 'others,' not in the name of any universal community, higher commonality or expansion, but rather as body on the surface of which singularities are no longer personal and identities are no longer expansive. And such is the movement of Grrr; its engulfment, its incorporation of the people it encounters while it swells is not expansive in the conventional sense, not a cannibalistic swallowing up. Instead, it is a flowing of desire itself. This swelling, imbibing every desire that persists in secret flow, making them part of its continuously revolving surface, bears similarities to the movement of a swarm, which is what I will now call it. Swarm has evolved into a tornado, a decelerated avalanche, a big sticky tongue without a mouth that laps up and absorbs all human life.

My fascination for the extraordinary beauty of this now budding thing – I should call it Monster for a moment – is grounded in my observations of its becoming. Unlike traditional monsters that get produced by an anthropological inclusion-exclusion machine, as described by Giorgio Agamben, unlike monsters whose monstrosity is understood as a painful deviation through their being compared with a norm,  monster Monster, whom I would actually rather call Flux from now on, becomes what it is first and foremost through the multiplication of itself, through its rapid and unceasing movement. Each of its own particles is at the same time a center, transfer, and periphery of itself. It has innumerable arms and legs at its disposal and still lacks limbs. This body lives beyond gender, can adapt and assimilate any given form and can reveal within itself everything and nothing. This anamorphic entity no longer refers to any bodily experience. Here, the insistence on a formulation for shape serves only to describe a becoming-fluid. A becoming-superfluous for form. This formless body, able to last for seconds or hours, is a means rather than an end. A positive deterritorialization that does not necessarily lead, in text or in application, to a reterritorialization. This body is activism; it will propel me forward into the realm of the non-lingual, the non-subjective, the faceless. Laughter.


This text was first published in Rire Laugh Lachen

Antonia Baehr / Les Laboratoirs d'Auberville / L'oeil d'or, 2008

Helmuth Plessner, who locates his analysis of laughter in the border area between philosophy and human biology, sets his sights on the relation between body and mind. His key concept of the "eccentric position" interprets the human being as a creature who is a body as much as it has a body and whose knowledge of this exacts a perception of a distance between itself and this body, both of which must be kept in a precarious balance. When it lapses into laughter – 'The provocation of laughter attacks and coerces us. Oftentimes we have to defend ourselves against it with force in order not to burst out.' – the human being loses this very equilibrium. It loses control over itself and its body. Bodily processes emancipate themselves. 'The body’s psychosomatic lucency hits rock bottom. An unwanted overwhelming disorganization sets in, one which is in no way merely yielded to; rather, it is seen as a gesture and as a sensible reaction. Hence, a triumph lies in this 'overwhelming' laughter: The human being triumphs and confirms its humanness in the catastrophe which offers the experience of its otherwise controlled relation to its own body. Through being derailed and blunderingly lapsing into a bodily process which compulsively runs its course and remains opaque to itself, through the destruction of inner balance, the human being’s relation to its body is at once divulged and recreated. The real impossibility to find a corresponding expression and a suitable answer is at the same time the only corresponding expression, the only suitable answer.'


adaptions from: Helmuth Plessner, "Lachen und Weinen. Eine Untersuchung der Grenzen menschlichen Verhaltens." Gesammelte Schriften VII – Ausdruck und menschliche Natur. [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1982], 273)

Laughter is a healthy person’s natural reaction to funny or exhilarating situations, but it is also a reaction that provides relief after overcoming dangers or that averts threatening social conflicts, not to mention acts as a defense mechanism against sudden states of fear. Among people, laughter is seen as an expression of sympathy and mutual understanding. It thus deploys a soothing, conflict-suppressing effect which is beneficial for living together in groups. On the other hand, 'abstract laughter' is a performative or therapeutic technique and is based solely on different directives that regulate the dramaturgy and the chronological development of the laughter. This sort of laughter does not ground itself in individual affects or social activities, and I, therefore, call it 'causeless' and 'abstract.'

In another scene it can and will be someone else who becomes invisible.

…the anthropological machine necessarily functions by means of an exclusion (which is also always an alignment) and an inclusion (which is also always an exclusion). Precisely because humanness is suppositional in every case, the machine creates a kind of exceptional circumstance, a zone of indeterminacy where the outside is no more than the exclusion of the inside and conversely the inside is only the inclusion of the outside. (Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, translated from German. English translation: Stanford, Los Angeles: Stanford University Press, 2004)